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The working class: the gravediggers of capitalism

Faline Bobier

March 25, 2013

Marxists are sometimes charged with “privileging” class—that is, with insisting that class is the fundamental division in society. What is assumed to follow from this is that we don’t take seriously questions of oppression—women’s oppression, homophobia, transphobia, racism, disability oppression, national oppression
This reflects the impact of Stalinism, which presented a “Marxism” purged of the anti-oppression politics that are central to working class self-emancipation. Marx argued that the working class had the potential to become the gravediggers of the system that oppressed and exploited most of humanity—the capitalist system. This was not to claim some moral superiority of workers over the middle class or the peasantry, or to subordinate questions of oppression to class—but to unite struggles against oppression with working class resistance because of workers’ unique position in relation to the means of production.
Contradictions of capitalism
In The Communist Manifesto Marx describes capitalism at its beginnings as a revolutionary system, because it creates, for the first time in human history, the potential for liberation from want. Through the development of industrial production, it became possible for every human being to be fed, clothed and housed. But as Marx recognized, even in his time, capitalism would never achieve this society of plenty for all, because of the way production is organized, with the means of production controlled by a tiny minority of society, the ruling class—more widely known today as “the 1%”.
Marx described the ruling class as  “band of warring brothers” in constant competition with each other—giving the system a relentless drive to expand. As Marx wrote in Capital: “Fanatically bent on making value expand itself, he (the capitalist) ruthlessly forces the human race to produce for production’s sake.” Capitalism’s insatiable drive has brought us in the 21st century to the edge of climate chaos and environmental destruction. But the Achilles heel of capitalism is that is can only create and re-create itself through the labour of workers.
Marx defined the working class on the basis, not of their salary or self-definition, but on their objective relationship to the means of production. Workers are those of us who can only survive by selling our labour power. So, although we are in that sense enslaved to capital, capital is also dependent on us—and capitalism grows by producing its own gravedigger, the working class.
This dependence on the working class can potentially be the downfall of the system. Profits only come from the exploitation of workers, and because of workers’ relationship to production—we create all the wealth in society, but have no control over what is produced, how it is produced or who it is produced for—workers are constantly thrown into conflict with the bosses over working conditions, wages, questions of democracy in the workplace. When workers withdraw our collective labour power, the gears of capitalism and the profits that flow from it grind to a halt—creating the possibility of reorganizing society on the basis of human and environmental needs.
The changing nature of the working class
Some left academics and others have argued at various times over the past 40 years that the working class is no longer the force for change that it was in Marx’s time. In fact, French philosopher and leftist Andre Gorz argued something very similar to this, only weeks before May 68 when 10 million French workers occupied their factories and French President Charles De Gaulle fled the country fearing that his government was finished. More recently, some have argued that we have entered an information age, a postindustrial society with virtual production—which has removed living, breathing human beings from the equation.
It has often been argued that the shrinking of the industrial working class in western capitalist countries signals the weakening of the working class in general—if “worker” is reduced to white men in overalls. It is certainly true that the traditional manufacturing sector has declined from what it once was. But at the same time we have seen the public and service sectors becoming much more important. The largest section of the working class in Germany in Marx’s time was probably female domestic workers. As Marx also argues in The Communist Manifesto, capitalism, by constantly revolutionizing production, also changes and reshapes the working class at the same time.
There are more workers today in the country of Brazil than there were in the whole of the working class at the time Marx was writing. Although there may be fewer manufacturing workers in western capitalist countries, centres of manufacture have opened up in many countries in the global South—whose workers wield the same power to stop production by downing their tools as their sisters and brothers in the global North. Today most workers are in the global south, and include people from every gender, sexual orientation, faith, ability and nationality.
The return of working class resistance
In the past few years this international working class has started to rise, as central participants in movements for a better world. There have been general strikes across Europe, especially in Greece where workers’ resistance against austerity is the essential antidote to the threat of fascism and attacks on migrants. Women textile workers in Mahalla began strike waves in Egypt in 2008 that contributed to the Arab Spring—which has seen general strikes from Tunisia to Bahrain. South African miners at Marikana fought the bosses and police, and exposed the ANC government.
The struggle today is a struggle against ruling classes in every country who intend to make ordinary people pay for the crisis, by robbing them of their pensions, their wages, their futures—and indeed, as we have seen recently in Cyprus—robbing them literally by plundering their bank accounts, the hard-earned savings that workers have accumulated to provide for their old age or to send their children to school.
This is certainly true of countries on the sharp end of capitalist crisis (Greece, Portugal, Spain, etc.), but there have also been important struggles in our own backyard. In the US there was the Chicago teachers who waged a successful struggle against anti-teacher and anti-student initiatives by Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, and the inspiring strikes by non-unionized Walmart and fast-food workers fighting for rights and unionization.
Quebec saw the strike by Rio Tinto workers in Alma, that built solidarity between Quebec and English Canada against union-busting. In Canada we had the short-lived but inspiring wildcat of Air Canada workers confronting the arrogance of Federal Tory Minister of Labour Lisa Raitt, the Toronto library workers who pushed back Rob Ford, the recent victory of Homes First workers, and the ongoing strike of Porter Airlines workers fighting for dignity on the job in Toronto.
Strike back against oppression and exploitation
It’s clear that the only way for workers to win is to unite against a common enemy. To do this it’s imperative to fight all forms of oppression—racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, disability oppression, national oppression—that are used to divide the 99%. This can't wait "until after the revolution" because no revolution of self-emancipation is possible without challenging oppression.
It’s clear, from Egypt to Greece to Canada—where rulers are consciously using scapegoating of immigrants and attacks on women’s rights to try and divide the movement—that the workers’ movement must take these backward ideas head on, if they are going to win.
The working class has globalized since Marx’s time and remains “a class in itself”, with interests that are diametrically opposed to the interests of the ruling class. Whether it can became a “class for itself”, realizing its power and moving consciously towards overturning the system that exploits and oppresses us all, will only be resolved through the struggle.

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